Okay, okay, yes. I haven’t written for a long time. From now on entries will be more frequent. Because I’m soon going to have more to write about. Actually, I kind of already have a lot to write about. Let’s dive in, shall we?
My little trip to Korea has been steadily coming closer. Boy, is there a lot of paperwork. I’ve told you about this before, but it’s still true. The latest things I’ve had to send out for were my visa and a residency certificate from the IRS that certifies that I’ve resided in the USA, and thus I don’t need to pay Korean income tax on what I earn there. I thought I was going to have to go to Chicago to interview for my visa, but they do this by mail now, so that was convenient… comparatively.
Aside from all the paperwork, though, there is other news to tell. I know when I’m leaving—the morning of August 17. I also know where I’m going. I got a letter a while ago saying that I probably wouldn’t get placed in my preferred city of Gwangju, because I was a little bit later on the uptake than some people, and cities always get taken first. They gave me a list of provinces and unpopular cities to decide among. So I did a little research, with the help of a really handy website that I discovered called Wikitravel. It turned out there was a fairly clear best. If I wanted to, I could go to a province near a big city, or that contained a big city—like Gyeongnam, the province that surrounds Busan—but then there was Gangwon. Wikitravel had this to say:
Geographically elongated north and south, Gangwon-do is in the Korean peninsula’s central eastern region. About 82% of the land is mountainous. … The variegated beauty of Gangwondo’s four seasons radiates even more against the rich natural environment here. … The Seoraksan Mountains have multiple hiking courses, valleys, and cultural artifacts hidden in each valley, and are internationally renowned as a habitat for rare plants and animals.
It kind of goes on like that. Apparently Gangwon is where Koreans go to see nature, which made it a particularly good place for me. The downside to it is that it’s not very heavily populated, so I may not have a whole lot of people to talk English with, but then again, the isolation might cause the Gangwon teachers to have a sense of solidarity that you might not find in Seoul or Busan, where English speakers are like mice. So I told EPIK that’s where I wanted to go. And I got it. It looks like it’s going to be a good year, full of mountain climbing and kimchi and learning a language while teaching another one. To get an idea of what it’ll be like, just look at Mt. Seoraksan:
Not that scenery is going to guarantee that I’ll have no problems, but still, it certainly can’t hurt.
By the way, I’ve been wanting to write a little about this for your benefits: Pronouncing Korean words. This is so you’ll actually be able to say out loud all the things I’ll be mentioning over the coming year.
Korean has a writing system of its very own, and it’s phonetic, unlike Japanese and Chinese. Up until the 1600s, they were getting along using the Chinese characters that the Chinese had foisted on them in the old days when China ruled basically the whole continent. But then, King Sejong started feeling a little more independent and realized that it made no sense for Korean to use Chinese characters, because the Korean language works nothing like Chinese. Briefly, Chinese is an isolating language, which means that words don’t get anything connected onto them—there are no conjugations or plurals; by and large every word stands on its own. That makes it pretty easy (well, somewhat easy—well, easier than in other cases) to use a picture for each word. You don’t have to have separate pictures for “horse” and “horses”, because there’s no such thing as “horses”. But Korean has lots and lots of conjugations and tenses and particles and possessives and stuff. So the Chinese system didn’t work so well. So King Sejong commissioned some scholars to create a writing system that was phonetic.
They invented Hangeul, which is widely touted as one of the most logical writing systems in the world. In Hangeul, each syllable is represented by a square built of two to five phonetic characters. If you want to see what they look like, go to any website in Korean, like, say, Wikipedia. But I’m not going to teach you how to build them, or what character has what sound, because this is supposed to be about how to pronounce stuff, and I’ve already detoured enough by telling you all that stuff about King Sejong that had nothing to do with pronunciation.
Korean has eight vowels, but really only seven, because only old people somewhere in Seoul still reliably distinguish e and ae. These are the vowels:
- a—as in spa
- ae and e—as in pet, more or less
- i—as in ski
- eo—as in cup, more or less. It’s kind of counterintuitive, but that’s how that vowel is spelled.
- o—as in go, but do it with a Canadian accent. It might help to imagine a Wisconsinite saying, “Don’tcha know?”
- eu—the e in sic ’em. It’s kind of colorless. Not too far off from the oo in book.
- u—as in boot
- There are also some vowel combinations that are a little tricky. The main weird one is oe, which is pronounced we as in wet. Another tricky one is ui, which is sort of like in buoy. Oh yeah, and there’s wo, which is apparently just a common shorthand for weo—so it’s pronounced “wuh”, not “whoa”. The Korean currency, the won, is pronounced “one” there, as far as I know.
It has a bunch of consonants, too, but the thing is that no one can agree on how to transliterate them from Hangeul. I’ll stick to one system, the most up-to-date one, but be aware that other people could be misleading you by using older systems.
These ones are pretty straightforward: h, m, n, y, w, ng (as in singer, not finger). The r is like in Japanese, mostly—that is to say, a trill sort of thing halfway between l and r but not really either. Don’t worry if you can’t get it; l or r is probably close enough. (Pronounce it as written—it sounds more like one or the other depending on what’s around it, but that’s accounted for in transcribing.)
The tricky bit is the other ones. Korean has three series of consonants. English only has two: voiced consonants (for example b, d, g) and unvoiced (p, t, k). All three of Korean’s consonant series are unvoiced, all in different weird ways, so it’s really tricky for us to tell the difference between, say, d, t, and dd. And for your pronouncing purposes, it probably doesn’t matter, either. But if you want to try it, this is what the series are like. They correspond to each other: the p-t-k-ch from the first series is related to pp-tt-kk-jj from the third series, and likewise related to the b-d-g-j from the second one.
The aspirated series is like our unvoiced series: p, t, k, and ch are just like you’d say them in English, basically. That one’s simple. (Except: for ch, flatten your tongue more against the roof of your mouth than you would in English.)
The (plain) unvoiced series is like the aspirated series, but without the little puff of air that we always say afterwards. Try it: say “pit” in English with your hand in front of your mouth, and there’s a little puff after the p. But you can say it without the puff: say “spit”, and it isn’t there. That’s what b, d, g, and j are like: b is like the p in spit; d is like the t in stitch, and so on. EXCEPT: when they come between vowels, they actually do sound like our b, d, g, and j—they become voiced.
The tense ones are really tricky. The only good way to explain them is that they’re like the plain unvoiced ones, but your muscles are tenser when you say them. These are pp, tt, kk, and jj, but the first ones also get spelled bb, dd, and gg a lot. Don’t worry if you can’t say them, but if you can, hey, cool party trick. And yes, you can start a word with them (and it looks funny), as you know if you’ve ever tried jjigae or tteok.
The last thing is the difference between s and ss. Koreans will tell you, inexplicably, that s is as in slow and ss is as in sun. This makes no sense to English speakers, because we don’t say those esses differently. The real answer is that regular s has a little puff of air after it, just a little one, and it’s more delicate. The double ss has no puff and is said a little longer. You can start words with ss too. In fact the word for a double consonant starts with one: ssang.
This has been a very long guide to pronouncing Korean, but hopefully it’ll be useful for you later.
All right, on to other stuff. Crowduck is another thing that happened. It’s almost a tautology to say that this year was another wonderful year of fishing. I, personally, didn’t catch all that many fish, and I didn’t catch an enormous one either, like certain parties did (ahem, Tracy, Grandma, Uncle Howard). But I did catch some, and in so doing I spent a lot of time out on the lake, and that’s what matters. There were an awful lot of kids up there this year: Cory, Cammy, Sierra, Sierra, and Hayden. That tended to turn things into kind of a hurricane a lot of the time, but it was a manageable sort of hurricane. Apparently I was integral in keeping things together, although it didn’t usually feel like I was doing much work. I was just amusing the Sierras, or keeping an eye on Cory or Cammy, and that was easy. Heck, Cammy was a joy to be around—she’s just learning how to talk, so she’s in the phase where it’s really cute watching her put two or three words together to say what she wants to say, but she can’t be very bossy or whiny yet because she can’t put together whole sentences. Also, she loved it up there, and that added to the cuteness. The other kids were cute too, don’t get me wrong. But Sierra Grace has certainly figured out how to be bossy, and also her diet consists of sugar mixed with sugar and sprinkled with sugar, so she has lots of energy to do it. Sierra Gwyneth is mercifully calmer, but she always wants me to flip her upside-down. All the time—really. I don’t see what she gets from it, but hey, to each her own. Cory and Hayden don’t say much, so there’s not a whole lot to say about them, except that they seemed to be having a pretty good time.
Once the kids went to bed, there was poker. I started out pretty miserably by losing about ten bucks in two days, but I came right back for the rest of the week and smoked everyone with my superior hands, expert skills at reading people, and radiant charisma. Dan, Grandpa, and I were responsible for lightening the monetary loads of Dave, Beth, Tracy, and Uncle Howard. This year we also invented the best poker game ever: Follow the Queen to the Liquor Sto’. I could explain it to you, but it would be much more efficient to tell you that it’s insanity embodied in a game, and also (it bears repeating) it’s the best poker game ever. After ten hands we were still discovering new wrinkles and complexities, and busting our guts. Grandpa thought it was a bunch of Mickey-Mouse, though. There’s no way to calculate odds on these wild-card games.
That about sums up Crowduck. I guess there’s the small issue of the nanny, which I thought might become a bigger issue. She’s 22 years old, same as me, and enjoys Scrabble enough to have gotten Scrabble tattoos, so I thought we might enjoy some interesting conversations. But basically she barely seemed to register my existence, so I kind of just forgot about her most of the time. Though it was pretty funny at the end of the week when she partied hard with a dockhand who’s about 15 years her senior. Apparently she’s not into guys her age—they have to be better seasoned, I guess. We little boys are invisible.
On the way back from Crowduck there was a little get-together in Chicago at the reptile house. I wasn’t aware of it, but the cousins a generation above me try to get together with each other at least once a year or so, so they can drink and tell funny stories and play croquet. The reptile house is Deb’s. It’s overrun by everything cold-blooded. She showed them to us, and I got to hold the fattest snake I’ve ever seen, and also a Vietnamese mossy tree frog, whose call sounds like a sonar ping. She has an axolotl, which would be cool just for the spelling alone, but is also an interesting creature. With all the turtles we eventually had a turtle race. (It was a kid thing, so I ended up the oldest participant. Oh well.) Later on, there were hilarious firework shenanigans, and lots of sitting around talking about cars. I got Deb on board to take care of Tenzing while I’m gone. I relaxed with the family.
So now there’s the small matter of the disbanding of my household. Everyone is going to go their own separate way, it seems, and soon it will be very rare for all of us to be together. Dad’s staying at the house, Mom is moving out to an apartment, Micah is moving to some disreputable friend’s house, and I’m going to Korea. It’s a whole messed-up situation. But the thing is, I’ve seen it coming down the pike from a long way off, and I’ve had time to prepare.
I don’t know if it’s the best way to solve all our problems. Dad think that it would have been good for Micah if he and Mom had stayed together and kicked Micah out; then he would quickly find out that his infinitely surly and entitled-feeling attitude has no place in the real world, and he’d have to come back home to sort out his problems. Mom and Dad would welcome him in, but under rules, and, having run in with reality, he’d realize he actually needed to follow those rules. Maybe that’s how it would have panned out, but maybe not. Doesn’t matter now, because Dad has decided that he’s had enough of trying with Micah. Also with Mom. I don’t know, he had a few beers last night and basically disowned everyone but me, and said I stand to “make out like a bandit” as his sole heir in a few decades or so.
That’s Dad’s current attitude. Micah’s attitude is what his attitude has been for a long time: I deserve everything because the world has been so cruel to me, so you’d better hand it to me. He knows he’ll have to find a job, but he’s done practically nothing to actually find one. The disreputable friend he’s moving in with is going to insist that he find a job to pay rent, so my prediction is that he’ll end up moved in with Mom for a while. To this I say: Mom, it is the most important thing in Micah’s life that you make him go out and find a job. That will force him to stop smoking pot, or at least smoke less. It will also make him appreciate that he has to work for stuff, rather than getting it handed to him. Do not, do not under any circumstances, give him a free ride at your apartment. He will never learn a single thing as long as you do that. If you do that to try to prevent problems, like the possibility of him running away, you will be going about it all backwards, because the more he learns about how to fit into the real world, the more likely he’ll be to settle down in one place and be responsible. Housing him in your apartment to keep him from running away would be like breaking a horse’s leg to keep it in the stable. Maybe it stays for a while, but when it gets out, it’s gone for good, and it has to make it out there with a broken leg.
How do I feel about the whole thing? Let’s just say I’m glad I’m putting a hemisphere between myself and these issues. When I come back, maybe everything will be better, or maybe it will be even worse. In either case, I won’t be obligated to deal with the problems any longer. So I won’t.
Let’s finish this off on a better note. At Crowduck, Tracy told me about the time she spent a bunch of months traveling around Europe. People had told me before that I should spend some time there seeing all the culture, and I knew it was a good idea, but I never thought about it all that much. I guess maybe Tracy told me at the right mental moment for me, or maybe she was the only one who described the continent evocatively enough, but I was inspired to think of a potential alteration to the Year of Adventure plan. Once I’m done in Korea, instead of going straight back to the States, what I think would be terrific is if I took a ferry to China and got on the Trans-Siberian Railway all the way to Europe. Then I could do the classical thing and hitchhike around Europe for months. I’ve heard that this can be done very cheaply, which stands to reason, since it’s hitchhiking. And really, there’s a lot I should see. In the story that I’ve been trying on and off to write, a big theme is how humans have very little species-wide memory, where that memory is basically akin to cultural history. America has a few hundred years of memory at best, unless you count the few remaining fragments of Native American cultures that the memoryless white culture has done its damnedest to eradicate. But Europe and Asia both remember thousands of years, and I want to experience a place with that much history. So perhaps a voyage across Siberia is in my future.